Since Thursday, we haven’t been able to move for shadow minsters pontificating about “ambition” and “aspiration” – much of it their own. Most of this soul searching is entirely performative: far from ‘moving the party on’, it promises a return to a centre ground demographic that last existed over a decade ago, and to precisely the glossy machine politics that has been so overwhelmingly defeated at the polls.
But there is a real danger that the wider left will focus criticism entirely on the Labour right when in fact there is now a desperate need to look the political and social realities squarely in the face. Part of that means not letting the Labour leadership off the hook, but much more importantly, it means evaluating our own tactics and holding our own leadership to account – not just in the political mainstream, but in the broader anti-austerity movement as well.
Last Thursday, the political right – that is, the Conservatives and parties to their right – got a majority of the popular vote. That hasn’t happened since 1931, and it represents a real failure of the left as a whole in persuading the public at large. Many who should share an anti-austerity narrative have been lost to anti-migrant bigotry and economic conservativism, and, perhaps most crucially, the left as a whole has failed to convince enough people that resistance and alternatives to austerity can succeed – that protests, strikes and civil disobedience are anything more than futile.
If the left is to have any hope of coming out of the next 5 years as a serious political force, and with a welfare state that is worthy of the name, it is going to have to capture the public imagination and cause such overwhelming fuss and disruption that the government cannot implement its programme. In order to do that, we are going to have to find a way to meaningfully resist.
The past five years have been littered with A to B demonstrations which ended being talked at by famous people in Hyde Park, and with large but ultimately symbolic one-day strikes. All of these have been talked up by trade union leaderships and much of the organised left as great acts of defiance and disruption, because we needed momentum and headlines. But the idea that these tactics, or the current industrial strategy of the trade unions – including left-leaning ones such as Unite – is capable of saving the welfare state is a fantasy.
Since 2010, we have witnessed the abject failure of the left’s own institutions to put forward either a coherent narrative or strategy. When we needed a solid political narrative, the Labour leadership accepted the premise of austerity. When we needed a toe-to-toe fight with the government, the major unions could offer us only another march, or another 24-hour strike followed by another bad pensions deal.
In the wake of electoral defeat, centrists will spend months putting out dire warnings about how radical ideas and tactics will alienate the electorate or isolate us. Precisely the opposite is the case: unless we are willing to turn our A to B marches into mass direct action and civil disobedience, and our one-day strikes into all-out fights, the anti-austerity movement, and the political alternatives to neo-liberalism more broadly, don’t stand a chance. People aren’t stupid, they know this – and the case for being (and voting) leftwing is being eroded as a result.
It is primarily outside of its formal institutions that the left has blossomed in the past five years. From the student movement, to the radical workplace disputes for living wage and decent sick pay, to the E15 Mums and the housing campaigns, and even Occupy – we have seen the growth of a large number of inspiring and successful campaigns. All of them have been focussed on direct action, usually of a disruptive variety, all have been democratic campaigns led from the ground up, and all have been unashamed of coming up against – and even openly breaking – the law.
There will be no rest in the need to resist the government’s programme, and no-one and nothing is safe. It seems likely that Cameron’s first move will be to raise the bar on strike ballots to require a 40% yes vote from eligible members. These measures could spur on union members and increase the turnout, but they could also render most strikes illegal and force unions to either systematically break the law or remain passive. When that moment comes, it is difficult to imagine the trade union movement in its current shape putting up a serious fight. In this and in many other areas, “learning from” the rank and file movements and grassroots campaigns is not enough – the institutions of the left need to be run by them, and if they fail to lead, we will simply have to bypass them.
Regardless of whether or not it is their direct aim, the effect of all of this government’s policies will be to attack the left’s ability to organise. The more people and communities are defeated and impoverished, the less likely they are to fight back and the more likely they are to turn to the right. The real soul-searching that needs to be done is not about which machine politician will lead Labour – it is about how we can build a movement that can seriously challenge the government in the streets, and in doing so, persuade people that there is an alternative.